Amartya Sen’s Failed Attempt

via Dr. Vijaya Rajiva published on April 23, 2011

After winning the Nobel Prize for Economics (1998) Amartya Sen took a fateful turn at freelance writing about Indian history, politics, religion, culture and what not. In 2005 he produced a book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ which sought to contain Hindu India by a well known technique, that of appropriating the merits of Hindu civilisation and adopting them as part of his new effort at a renaissance , while at the same time rejecting the ongoing strengths of that civilization which has provided the foundations for his contemporary project. His dual method seeks to appropriate the open ended vision and enquiry that has been characteristic of Hindu civilization since its earliest beginnings,  while rejecting Hindu Dharma, which is the source of that very open endedness.

His attempt has failed because it is not an authentic one. Why he embarked on this project is a question mark. His future career may provide some answers.

Meanwhile, it is important for Hindus to recognize the aims of this project and its modus operandi. Unlike Arundhati Roy’s vindictive comments about her mythical evil Brahmanic Hindu state, Amartya Sen moves carefully and cautiously to build his case against Hindu India. The style is chatty and leisurely. Hindu civilization Sen intones has a long standing tradition of argument and debate, ever since the time of the open ended Vedas. It  should be revived. It should not be abandoned in the face of Hindu nationalism which he alleges has rejected this open ended tradition and has “incarcerated Hinduism.”

The question ,ofcourse, is who is doing the incarceration, and indeed who is trying to deal a death blow to Hinduism ?

Sen cannot sound , does not sound, like Arundhati Roy. He cannot make blanket generalizations against Hinduism ( as she does) since that would take the bottom out of his project which stakes its claims of authenticity on an open ended Hinduism which he feels must be revived. Gradually, after the first salvo against the Hindu nationalists it becomes clear that he has an agenda. In a charming biographical essay in the book he speaks about his early atheism and materialism. Presumably, that still obtains.

What are the characteristics of his method in this book ?

1.Omissions : while speaking about the Ramayana he does not mention that Valmiki saw Lord Rama as a divine figure. Needless to say he does not even mention the other famous Ramayanas, Tulasidas’s Ramacharitamanas, the Kamban Ramayana and Ezuthatchan’s Ramayana.,all of which extol Rama as a divine figure. The songs and music , both of the north and the south view Rama as a divine figure. The Rama temples house a deity. Hanuman the quintessential devotee worships him as divine. Festivals, dance dramas, the classical music of India all focus on Rama as a divine figure.

   Why does Sen omit all this ? He has to maintain the secular character of the Rama
 figure     because he needs to eliminate the central role of Rama bhakti in contemporary Hindu  life and thought, especially among the masses. It is, therefore, a combination of lack of knowledge of the topic, snobbery (the aam admi’s religious sensibilities do not count in HIS  view of a secular India) and a deliberate omission with an agenda in mind.

The second striking omission is the absence of the word Dharma in his rather superficial account of the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. He will repeat this argument in his later work The Idea of Justice (2009). Arjuna questions the wisdom of the war where there will be a great deal of bloodshed and devastation. Krishna advises him that since he is a warrior his DUTY is to defend his people against the wicked.

Sen uses the word ‘duty’ but not Dharma, which has huge moral and ethical implications in Hinduism and goes beyond the word ‘duty.’ He strenuously avoids that central word of Hinduism.

2.The inaacurate rendering of Indian history. Buddhism,  according to him, dominated India for  a thousand years. This is  not quite accurate. Some three hundred years after the Buddha’s death Buddhism migrated to other countries such Tibet , China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Sri Lanka and the far East. Its influence waned as early as the first years of the first millennium (CE )and lingered on till the rise of Sankara and his  Vedanta in the 8tt to 9th century of the Christian era.
3.And certainly while Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) and Akbar (16th century of the Christian era) were great kings there were many other great kings in Hindu India.

It is embarrassing to have to repeat the long line of great  Hindu kings that he has ignored, both in the north and in the south. With regard to the south the silence is deafening. Nothing about the great kings of Vijayanagar (Hindu kings) ,nothing about the Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas etc.

Indeed, anything south of the Vindhyas is omitted in his accounts. There are some brief references to Ujjain, to Kalidasa and so on with regard to the north. It soon becomes clear that Dr. Sen is not in his element.

4.The  frequent references to the ‘greatness’ of the selective figures of his choice. For instance while talking about devotional Hinduism in the middles ages, he omits Tulsidas and hails Kabir as the greatest poet of the times ! No doubt Kabir was a great figure, but the greatest !

Medieval India was bustling with great poets, savants and sages.
The present writer is of the opinion that Dr. Sen is ill prepared to write about Hindu culture, philosophy and literature. He would be more credible if he stayed with economic issues, with development, with the issues of poverty and class injustices etc. This indeed is where he could make a difference.

By his own reasoning, the ‘argumentative Indian’, the one who is open and tolerant of diverse traditions, has been the Hindu norm. Amartya Sen’s advocacy of it is neither here nor there. It is nothing new. What is new about his project is his attempt to separate out this ethos from Hindu India and present it as something brand new under his aegis and his sponsorship of it. In other words, by his rather exaggerated notion of his own project if Amartya Sen had not appeared on the Indian scene this ‘argumentative ‘ tradition  is  alas  bound to disappear !

As matters stand, his  individual agenda  is  misplaced . Hindu India carries on. People still go to their temples, throng at festivals, pray at Kumbh Melas, watch in awe at the celebration of ancient rituals and celebrate Hindu festivals. Hindu syncretism is alive and well. The life affirmation vision of the Vedas, the worship of the terrestrial, the atmospheric, and celestial forces continues. The Devas and Devis continue to inhabit the land as they did since time immemorial. Hindus worship their gods and goddesses.

And Hindu Dharma is the order of the day.

(The writer  taught Political Philosophy at a Canadian university . Her academic training is in Philosophy, Political Science, Political Economy and History ).

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